You should also expect things to be different. Small, everyday things that you might automatically assume are done the same way everywhere around the world, but are not. Although only a thin stretch of sea separates the UK from France, the countless cultural and administrative differences I have encountered on a daily basis have astounded me. These range from such things as store opening times and sending mail, to booking a doctor’s appointment and sorting trash. But as time goes by and the dust settles around the upheaval of moving and all the other changes in my life, I have found myself to be part of this new community that is now my home. The lady at the boulangerie who knows my name and my favourite pastry, the flower seller who waves at me as I pass by on my bike, and the glorious ‘ca va?’ that reaches my ears from all directions. These experiences truly make me feel at home in France.
The part of Southwestern France which I now call home is a magical place. With a breathtaking coastline of sandy beaches, miles of pine forests, and enchanting lakes, Nouvelle-Aquitaine is certainly a good place to be if you enjoy the outdoors. Mimizan itself, as well as nearby resorts of Contis, Hossegor and Biscrraosse, attract surfing enthusiast from around the world. It is the surfing culture that lends the place a cool, laid-back, somehow Southern Californianesque feel. Even this past summer, despite the travel restrictions and a considerably lesser number of foreign visitors, Mimizan managed to attract a vibrant and diverse crowd. Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned veteran, you are sure to have all your surfing needs met here, with countless surfing schools, cafes and restaurants catering especially to the wave-riding folks, and even a surf lodge offering affordable accommodation and friendly staff. Avid surfers come to this part of France all year around, however, there is no denying that outside of the summer season, the costal resorts are far less lively. In fact it is ‘the season’ which dictates the pace of life here. Most retail venues, restaurants and bars rely on the summer months to provide them with the main chunk of their annual income. Locals, as well as seasonal workers who flock here from all over France and beyond, work insanely long hours, often going weeks without a day off. Then it all stops. Walking along the empty streets in early October, it is hard to believe that just a few weeks earlier I struggled to push my way through the crowd of tourists which lined the town’s center.
But there is so much more to this beautiful coast than seasonal madness and surfing. As is the case with many tourist destinations, the true spirit of the place lies buried deep underneath the façade. In truth, this is a close-knit community, comprised of people who perhaps came here to work a season or two and stayed for many years, or colorful characters who came to the end of the road, fell in love with the ocean and decided to settle here, at least for a while. With France’s unstable economy and especially the recent COVID-19 crisis, communities like Mimizan, which rely heavily on tourism and small businesses, have hown particular resolve and strength in overcoming adversity. People work hard here, always finding new ways to utilize the region’s rich resources and natural beauty. Arts and crafts, photography, jewelry making, and artisanal food are only some of the activities which are thriving here. Local markets and art fairs, which are organized a few time a week in town squares and market halls ensure that everyone gets a chance to showcase their work. What I found particularly heartwarming, is to witness how eager people are to encourage and support each other’s ventures. Outside of seasonal work, and with limited employment options, it is this creative community spirit which can make all the difference.
Contrary to the well-worn stereotype, I have found the French to be incredibly friendly and welcoming, despite my linguistic limitations. This was already apparent during my bike trip last year, but since my move to Mimizan I have been showered with acts of kindness and generosity. This only reaffirms my belief that being able to travel and discover new places, diverse cultures, and local communities, is one of life’s greatest gifts.
As a city boy, it is also a comfort to know that the beautiful city of Bordeaux lies little over an hour’s drive from here, and therefore is easily accessible, should I feel the need for any of the urban comforts I left behind. Only the other day, my boyfriend and I spent an incredible day exploring Bordeaux’s countess charming streets, with cafes and restaurants catering to every taste. I was even able to stock up on English language books at the enormous Libraire Mollat, one of the most spectacular bookstores I have ever visited. Bordeaux is also the closest place we can find any kind of substantial traces of gay culture. Having been an active member of London’s queer scene, I have to admit that I miss it, perhaps more than anything. Living in a queer-friendly metropolis like London, it is easy to forget that most places are not as accepting, or as rich in LGBTQ culture. I am unaccustomed to ‘being careful’ about showing affection or openly demonstrating my sexuality, nor do I want to become used to it. And while I’ve never encounter hostility or aggression, it somehow goes without saying that being too obviously queer would not be a good idea here. I suppose that’s just a common aspect of small-town life pretty much anywhere. But I feel like it is precisely by being ourselves and being as open as possible about who we love and how we live, that we can bring about real change of attitudes in rural communities, not just in France but around the world.
So after nearly six months of living in France, I can say that I am beginning to find my feet. I feel more at home, and more able to deal with the changes, which at first felt overwhelming. Is this the final stop on my journey? Certainly not. For now, I am happy to be here, and, most of all, happy to be with my love. As soon as I finish writing these words, Sylvain and I will go walking by the ocean. We might even hold hands. Life is pretty good.
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